Sisters are Doing It For Themselves
Not all travellers can endure the relentless slog of hard drinking, high living and sin that characterise life on the road. Holly Edwards got out of her bad habits and into fresh new ones when she travelled across Italy, swapping hostels in favour of convents.
Back in the summer of 2001, a friend and I travelled to Italy. But in the interests of saving a little bit of money - but not necessarily scrimping on luxury - we decided to stay with nuns. I had heard that many convents have rooms to rent and these are often cheaper than hostels and a good deal cleaner and more secure. If you can’t trust a nun to refrain from nicking your traveller’s cheques, who can you trust?
Our trip began with ten days in Rome, staying in a very well appointed convent just a short bus ride from the Vatican. Our twin room was very comfortable, with an enormous en suite and a beautiful view of the surrounding gardens. In fact, aside from the odd crucifix here and there, the place was no different from a nice hotel. Our room was cleaned to a heavenly standard every day and each evening we would arrive home to find our clothes, which we left in sluttish piles on the floor, folded and neatly put away in the drawers.
The nuns themselves were charming: white haired old dears in blue dresses who smiled and blessed us at every opportunity and if any of them resented folding my dirty smalls they tactfully didn’t show it. Aside from a polite enquiry as to our religious persuasion when we first arrived (we lied) and a reminder on Sunday to go to mass (is it bad luck to lie to nuns?) religion took a back seat to the running of a busy hotel. The only real drawback - and admittedly it can be quite a disadvantage if all you want to do is dance the night away - is that the nuns insist on a strict curfew of 11pm. Fortunately, if you are sight-seeing in Rome, there is so much to take in that by 11pm you are more than ready for bed. And despite a couple of close calls, we never tested how strictly this rule was observed; we always managed to get back in the nick of time, mumbling a slightly slurred ‘Buena notte,’ through red wine stained lips.
Sister Act II
Things were very different, however, when we travelled to the poorer and more rustic south of Italy. For a start, we had made the mistake of booking a room that wasn’t in Sorrento - which is apparently a charming little town - but in Piano di Sorrento, a grubby little hamlet with little to recommend it. The convent itself was on top of a steep hill and could be reached only by driving like a lunatic up an almost vertical incline, constantly on the lookout for cars and buses free-falling down towards you.
Here, there was no doubt as to the nature of our boarding house. The building had a grand, cathedral-like quality, with statues and icons proudly displayed on every available surface.
We were the only guests so had the pick of the rooms, which were very basic, although all had an en suite. I ran a bath, but the water came out a rusty, orange colour and then refused to drain. The lack of comfort, however, was worth it in exchange for the breathtaking view from our balcony of the Bay of Naples.
The nuns, who unlike their more subdued sisters in the north wore full penguin regalia at all times, were the real stars of our trip and as hospitable and delightfully bonkers as you could ever wish for.
The fearsome mother superior, Madre Mirania, picked us up from Sorrento train station and acted as our personal chauffeur for the next few days. Back at the convent, our dinner was prepared by Sister Augusta, a hirsute and toothless old woman, who fussed over us like a Jewish mother.
Dinner was a frugal affair: soup, which tasted like nothing more than hot water with macaroni floating in it, followed by breaded balls of some sort of meat/Play-Doh derivative and a Kraft cheese slice.
Sister Augusta, surely a budding Delia Smith, was at pains to point out that if we were still hungry, a second cheese slice could be provided.
There was a curfew here as well, but with an added condition: if we arrived home when the nuns were praying, we had to wait until they were finished before they would let us in. Since they were extremely devout and observant Catholics, this left us a very small window of opportunity.
Fortunately, this mattered little, as once you were out, there was no coming back. There was only one bus service that would take you up the hill to the convent and this had no timetable. Miss it and the next one didn’t come along for a fortnight. Which wouldn’t have been entirely unwelcome. All that godliness was starting to appeal.
Nun the wiser on how to copy Holly?
Reserving rooms in the convents was as easy as booking into a hotel. We went on recommendations from friends, but most places now have websites. If you are travelling around, ask the nuns where they would suggest; some may even phone up to make the booking for you, which can be very helpful, as most of the nuns we met spoke no English. Visit www.monasterystays.com for more info.